The Shame that Binds Us
our most universal and damaging form of religious guilt
My younger brother Oliver has always had stronger religious inclinations than either my older brother Dylan or myself. At least, that’s what I thought for a long time. In retrospect, I think he was just more open to spirituality than either of us. Or perhaps we were better at deluding ourselves about our own religiosity.
From a young age, both Dylan and I avoided affiliation with any of the church-type groups in our very Christian hometown of Colorado Springs. I think I felt superior for having decided that I did not believe in a God. Give me science. Give me concrete numbers.
Dylan and I followed our dad down quite sensible paths through school to engineering degrees and careers, although I’ve since strayed in other directions. This is not to say that engineers can’t be religious, let alone spiritual. The point, though, is that my dad, Dylan, and I tended to be more of the hard numbers types, not seemingly very susceptible to the pull of any sort of officially-recognized faith.
But throughout childhood, despite his older brothers’ gentle petitions and persuasions against it, Oliver would sometimes attend more overtly religious things like Christian youth group retreats. “Enlightened” as I was, I was concerned for his development; I saw him as perhaps dangerously impressionable at that young age.
I think what he mostly wanted, in retrospect, was comfort, and maybe some community. Like any reasonable mortal, he was frightened by the idea of death, and the engineers in his family were ill-equipped to provide a solace from which he could have benefited.
Eventually, he moved on from Christian theology to explore various blends of influences like humanism, feminism, environmentalism, animal rights, minimalism, native American religion and culture, and partaking in an herb, a drink, or a prescribed pharmaceutical here and there. He was always looking for answers, both within and outside of himself, while Dylan and I had already found most of the answers we felt we needed.
Fast forward a couple decades, and we’ve always worried about each other as families do, but we’ve probably worried about Oliver the most. Despite the thoughtfulness, talent, and care he brings to his life, he’s struggled to settle on a job he could be passionate about, and one that paid him enough to be able to stick with it. He’s always been more of a caretaker, like our mom (who’s a nurse practitioner), but he’s had difficulty finding an opportunity to do it professionally.
Oliver called me a few months ago when he graduated veterinary technician school and was just starting a new position in a vet’s office. There was a pride in his voice I don’t know if I’d ever heard before. He loved what he was doing.
I asked him how much they were paying him.
He said $16, and then he described that for the first time he was happy to work 40 hour weeks and felt like he had real responsibility and room for growth in this job.
I asked him if that was low or high for a vet tech. The $16, I mean.
I could sense him blush a little as he said proudly that, for the first time, he had negotiated himself a raise straight off the bat based on his latest education and certifications.
“How are your expenses lately?” I asked.
He said something about keeping them low, and then he excitedly recounted for me stories about his new colleagues, the things he was learning, and the animals he got to work with.
I asked him if he was able to start saving anything, paying off debts, and if they offered decent health benefits.
When we ended the call, I told him I was proud of him, hung up, and spent the next good while feeling like a jerk for spending most of the call diverting the conversation from his happy news to money matters. He’s used to it, I know. He stayed upbeat throughout it anyway. He knows that I care deeply about his career and personal fulfillment, but that I can’t resist checking in on his safety.
But I don’t want that to be the only thing I ask him about. It’s bullshit. It’s gotta sting for him, too, that constant harping on finances. Just like basically every family, we’re kind of weird about money, and these little moments act as points of tension and awkwardness.
A few weeks later my dad told me, somewhat crestfallen, that Oliver had torn up a birthday check for $700 meant to pay for a treatment for a shoulder injury he hadn’t been able to afford for a long time, a gift he’d previously said would be very useful to him.
It happened around one of those things — you know, those family things — where even the seemingly innocuous little moments can erupt, because they’re tied to years of deep-rooted memories and emotions. Someone had let a quick comment slip, something that came out sounding somewhat accusatory about something trivial that wasn’t actually Oliver’s fault, and it had become an argument.
Oliver had felt disrespected, and this time he happened to have the check sitting in his pocket and burning hot in his mind, this symbol of his “need,” this monument to his supposed “deficiency.”
All those years of pent up negative energy, a bubbling, simmering resentment from being seen as the perpetual “baby” of the family — the burden of a family’s worry, the societal stigma of being perceived as requiring help, and maybe, to some degree, a call a couple weeks before with an older brother who, just like every other time, could only seem to ask about how much money he was making—were directed into that small slip of paper, transforming it into shreds.
An alien visitor witnessing this interaction might consider it to be irrational behavior, but I would bet that it rings quite familiar and understandable to you. I know I’ve been there many times before. Can’t you just feel it, the burning cheeks and the boiling blood?
Yes, this was very normal behavior in our world. Oliver was performing a ritual of atonement, of sacrifice, with perhaps a dash of rebellion. Just like me, and Dylan, and my parents, and you, and everybody you or I know, and just about every human being to walk the planet for thousands of years, Oliver, despite his best efforts and well-practiced conscientiousness, has to some degree bought into our deepest religious training, our most indestructible faith.
It’s a holy doctrine that permeates every facet of our society, straining all of our relationships and perverting all of our behaviors as we writhe and contort to wrap our lives around it.
there’s no such thing as an atheist
I was very wrong to think myself non-religious. I’m devout to the core and always have been. So are you. So is every person in every nation on earth.
Now don’t feed me no lines about separation of Church and State. We are all religious and practicing, especially in the United States I call home. We are born and bred into a cult, brainwashed and compliant to a sacred dogma. It rules us all, driving every one of our structures of society and governance. It is at the very core of us. Like with any cult, it is just about impossible to break free of the mental and practical chains it imposes upon us.
The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
-a particular system of faith and worship.
-a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.
Yes, in America, our entire society is constructed around religion, and no, I’m not talking Christianity or any other officially-recognized practice. I’m of course talking about our supreme deity, Money (capitalized from here forward so as not to take Its name in vain).
I’m not going to insult your intelligence by explaining why Money is our deepest-held and most ubiquitous faith (hell, It’s worshiped unanimously). Either you already know this well, or you can take 30 seconds thinking about it and arrive at the same conclusion.
Instead, I’d like to narrow my focus on one of the most insidious aspects of Money as our God:
Like any self-respecting religion, Money too has a moral framework built up around guilt, sin, and shame designed to keep us mortals confused, unconfident, divided, submissive, and suppressible.
how Money shames us into submission
We prostrate and humble ourselves before almighty Money. We serve the economy rather than the other way around, and that reality leads directly to the extreme elevation of a privileged few at the expense and degradation of the vast majority.
our mighty religious leaders
From the top down, we have constructed a shame culture around Money that manifests as a distinct lack of transparency in all things Financial. From corporate taxes to philanthropic spending to convoluted government legislation, the reporting and accounting of the flows of currency through our economy are obscured in a dense fog.
The magic all goes down behind a thick curtain. Mutter a few abracadabras here or there, raise the curtain, and Poof! Where did all the Money go?! Thunderous applause ensues; we kneel in awe.
I suppose that’s true in the other major religions as well. The really dark and elite knowledge is reserved for the cardinals and bishops and popes, the imams, the rabbis, the church presidents, and the successors of the mighty L. Ron Hubbard himself.
Of course, this trend toward opacity becomes increasingly true the larger the sums of Money involved. We’ll gladly monitor every last penny moving through an elderly lady’s bank accounts if she’s on a fixed income, but it’s the God-given right of the ultra-wealthy to hide away their hoards on Caribbean islands far away from prying eyes, for corporations to declare all their income through a PO box in Ireland and chip in zero American tax dollars after making billions in profits, and we’ll be damned if the public is going to get a clear and simple picture of how and why trillions in government funds are spent.
We give up our right to know, replacing it instead with billionaire idolization. When we lay eyes upon Jeff Bezos or Facebook or Exxon, we behold true apostles of Money our God, and It speaks Its divine message to us through them. If we don’t understand, it’s okay, for Money works in mysterious ways.
And for those in positions of great wealth, they too bear a great deal of guilt and shame for their money, both internally and externally. Can they consider it simply a reward for success and effort? Is it greed? Is it at the expense of others? Should they feel bad about it? Society can’t seem to decide, either.
Either we uphold them as our prophets leading us to the light of progress, or denigrate them as demons, anti-christs, evil incarnate, tyrannically condemning the rest of us to endless suffering. Neither perspective strikes me as very healthy or accurate. When did the wealthy cease to be people in our estimation? When did they cease to be people in their own estimation? How do we get them back to that place?
the meek masses
Among us mortal folk, the shame takes on a more pedestrian nature, but it is just as ubiquitous, shaping every aspect of our lives. Consider a short list of the forms of shame the Church of Money heaps upon us daily:
To start, there’s the embarrassment that many of us carry for having too little. This is reinforced by societal shaming in the form of penalties, barriers, bureaucracy, and stigma.
There’s the humiliation of not being able to provide for our families, or of having to borrow from loved ones, not to mention the ignominy of accepting charity or government assistance. Our self worth is tied directly to our Dollars, and so when we have few of them, we tend to feel that we are failures as human beings.
Then, on the other hand, there’s the guilt for having too much and the fear that we don’t deserve whatever has come our way. In the Money-equals-self-worth paradigm, this compels those of us who are more fortunate to constantly convince ourselves and others that we deserve our elevated status.
Also in this realm lies the shame for not being charitable enough, for not being a generous enough tipper, or for being perceived as greedy or heartless.
And what of tipping? What the hell is that all about? Why is the value of a server’s hard labor so dependent upon a customer’s feelings of generosity and their understanding of a byzantine system of etiquette?
“Is it 15%, 18%, or 20% in this town? Is that a minimum? How much did we like this waiter? Do we tip the cab driver? The restaurant host? The doorman? The plumber? The movie theater sweeper person? The jar in the corner store? How much?”
“Gee, I dunno, honey, let’s Google it. There’s gotta be a listicle with the answers somewhere.”
What purpose does this serve except as cover for employers to parlay the costs of their overhead, employee well-being, and the risks of running a business onto their staff and customers? What does it achieve beyond temporarily deceiving customers that the price is lower than it actually is, followed by a sticker shock when the check comes, a mind-numbing and degrading process of haggling over the bill, and resentment all around?
Then there’s the shame that inserts itself into all of our relationships. Who brings home more Money in a household? Who gets to control how it’s spent? Between friends, who gives the bigger gifts at Christmas, has a more secure job, has the nicer car, and can send their kids to summer camp?
Speaking of kids, why is it so important to get so damn serious about life at like age 7? Why is there such shame at expressing a passion or aspiration that doesn’t earn a safe income?
“No Sarah, you can’t be a superhero when you grow up. No, you’re going to be a lawyer, or at least a legal assistant, at Daddy’s firm. You’ll learn to like it. Now hush up and eat your push pop.”
We’ve basically started planning for our retirement accounts long before we’ve even begun paying tuition. By the time we’re graduating high school or college, with brains not yet fully-formed, before having stepped foot into anything resembling the real world, we’re in full-on obsessive panic mode and ready for a quarter-life crisis from the weight of it all.
And for the kids in school, which ones get made fun of for the hand-me-down, off-brand everything that they wear, or conversely for being little Richie Rich in designer sneakers? Which kids aren’t made to feel cruddy about their family in some way because of Money?
In the working world, why is it so taboo to know or ask what other people are being paid? Who does it serve when we’re guessing in the dark at what we’re really worth to the bosses, looking at our coworkers with envy and suspicion? What does this achieve but an extension of inequity and a demoralized and underpaid workforce? How long could underserved groups be paid Cents on the Dollar of what white men are paid for the same work and experience if all of their salaries were posted on a billboard in the front of the damn office, like it wasn’t sacred knowledge only for the high priests in management?
Our Money shame introduces a deep toxicity into all arenas of human interaction. It corrodes our bonds of trust, respect, and love.
a priest, a rabbi, and a financial consultant walk into a bar…
Here’s another personal story involving a brother in distress, this time in a TedX talk I found, that I’d like to use to wrap up this section and uncover a deeper point. It’s a compelling presentation, well worth watching, but it misses the mark by a long shot, if you ask me.
Watch and try to decide: where did the failure occur?
Tammy Lally’s story is heartbreaking and poignant, and I believe in her competence as a personal financial counselor, but I don’t think she learned the lesson that we will all need to grasp in order to dig out of this mire of Money shame.
Her conclusion still seems to me to implicitly blame the individual too much. It implies that, with the right self-help attitude, familial compassion, better habits, and “doing the work” (i.e. counseling and introspection), we could all simply rise out of the trap of Money shame. This approach of a “slow wake-up,” as she describes it, might help a few individuals and families better their financial situations with respect to others, but it won’t really make a dent in our societal shame problem.
The reality is that the system was not designed to be winnable by everyone, or even by a majority. Each of us has been on one side or another of a rigged game ever since we were born, and Money shame is an integral part of keeping us all playing.
Maybe Tammy’s brother wasn’t so unjustified in his despair. In the big picture, maybe he didn’t fail — and maybe Tammy didn’t fail him — so much as society failed them both.
Now I sense that you may want to dwell on the many ways in which Tammy’s brother might have acted unwisely to get into his financial predicament. It’s a valid question but misses the point.
Here’s a metaphor for the sports fans: if you’re on, say, a soccer team, you’ve got to run, pass, and bust your tail if you want to be successful. We all know this.
But in the bigger picture, if you don’t have cleats, if you never get invited to practice, if you get two and a half minutes of playing time in the game, and if you have to carry two 97-pound burlap sacks of wet mulch around and wear a blindfold while you play, I don’t care if you have the natural talent of Lionel Messi and the heart of Rocky Balboa; you’re not going to get much done.
You might be satisfied to try not to get injured or kicked off the team. You might try to stay out of the way. You might just throw up your hands and quit.
And in the end, if we’re ultimately holding individuals and their behaviors entirely responsible for their struggles, then what is that but another, if gentler, form of shaming?
We must realize that our issues with Money run so much deeper than just our individual perspectives or our family relationships, important as those are. These problems are structural, built into the foundation of our economy.
We can’t “break out of the shame cycle” on a family-by-family or person-by-person basis, even with the support of an inspiring messaging campaign or a Ted Talk with a million YouTube views.
We need to do it together as a society. We need to do it with legislation.
So let’s get sacrilegious.
turning Money into money
Money doesn’t have to be our God, of course. Things could be very different. And don’t worry; I’m not about to promote some ill-conceived faux-utopian fantasies of banishing our systems of currency and markets, of getting rid of money itself, of somehow just pulling the plug on capitalism and all of our tools of commerce and cooperation in some sort of misguided burn-it-all-down revolution.
That would be to destroy ourselves faster than the gradual march of inequity and social decay that Money currently precipitates.
Whatever anyone says, however strong or well-intentioned their convictions may be, we are not about to go back to the barter system. It just ain’t happening. And cryptocurrencies, time banking, or centralized resource distribution systems and all such feel-good high tech visions are not going to replace cash any time soon as the primary basis of our transfer of goods and services, so please save your breath on this one, my fellow techno-futurists.
Money is not going away, but it doesn’t have to. In fact, it shouldn’t. It just needs a few tweaks.
Money could just be a tool and nothing more.
Imagine it. Instead of Money, it could just be money. The almighty Money is killing us, but if we learned how to use it, regular old everyday money as a tool can elevate us as a species and civilization.
To get there, we don’t only need to address an issue of shame culture. Our culture of shame is begot by a larger system of shame that we have designed for ourselves. Like with other societal issues, simply trying to adjust our perspective, our intentions, and our messaging will never be enough to affect meaningful and lasting improvement. We need to redesign and rebuild our whole economic machinery.
Does that sound daunting? Of course it does, because it’s a herculean task, but it’s the work that needs doing. However, we aren’t fighting blind here. What needs to happen is not that complicated. We know the steps to take.
Let’s start with a few fixes we could implement that would make a world of difference.
- Transparency in the Workplace — Everybody gets to know everybody’s salary. Period. For the love of God, just post them on the damn wall, the website, or whatever, for every company. This won’t happen through social pressure; it will have to be legislated. Maybe we could start with companies with over 500 employees and work our way down. Of course, it’ll be pretty damn awkward for a while as we accustom ourselves to no longer hiding what we earn like it’s a deep, dark secret. Renegotiations could be tense for a while, but wages will eventually find an equilibrium that is much fairer. If we’d had this kind of policy in place 50 years ago, I guarantee we wouldn’t be learning in the latest new study that we’re now getting $50K or so stolen from our salaries by our bosses and the shareholders each year on average. Yes, you read that right.
- Tipping — This is a somewhat smaller issue compared to the others, but I did call it out above, and I have waited a lot of tables, and I do have very strong opinions about it, so let’s just get this cleared up too while we’re at it. Why not just pay servers a minimum wage plus a standard service fee, a commission based on sales, and build that service fee (along with the tax, ideally) into the price customers see on the menu? Boom, no sticker shock, better service, faster turnover, and happier customers and employees. Any tip should truly be considered extra and never expected. And again, we can’t wait for restaurants to lead this charge. They can’t do it one at a time; they’ll lose their business. We have to legislate it so that they’re all playing by the same rules.
- Temporary Private Property — Private property is a wonderful concept. Without it, we’d have chaos. However, nobody’s great great great great grandchildren are any more worthy than anybody else’s, because none of them have done a damn thing yet. Similarly, on the corporate side, no company should be able to cling to a patent or copyright for all eternity, killing all innovation in a field in order to soak up a few more billions. It’s okay to let families pass on some inheritance to their offspring and it’s good to protect the interests of innovators, but let’s reign that stuff in so it doesn’t spiral out of control. It is supremely reasonable to enforce substantial taxes on inheritances in the millions of dollars and up, and it is quite logical and beneficial to phase out patents once their originators have been well-compensated for their risk and perseverance. These actions are necessary, in fact, if we ever hope to tackle our massive problem of wealth inequity.
- Enhance Tax Accountability, Close Loopholes, and a Simplify the Tax Code — Mega-corporations and the ultra-wealthy simply do not pay their fair share right now. Part of the reason for this is our complicated web of a tax code that can be gamed by those who can afford fancy tax accountants. Another part of the problem is that we just don’t know how much these people have or earn. It’s all hidden away in shell corporations and other financial maneuvers and trickery. Just like with our own salaries, we must drag these dirty secrets out into the light of day.
- International Tax Cooperation — But if we do this stuff, rich people and corporations will just pack up and leave the country for greener pastures, you say? Yes, they just might, unless we do something about that, too. And so another important thing we need to figure out how to do is to eliminate the opportunities for capital flight and the hiding of wealth. This will require establishing new international agreements to set new standards for taxation on multinational corporations and large fortunes. Obviously, this will face major political pushback, so we’d better get started working at it now.
- Universal Basic Income — We must eliminate the possibility of absolute failure for our citizens, and we must guarantee to all the ability to provide a dignified life for oneself regardless of circumstances. We must acknowledge and value each individual’s inherent worth in this way before the very idea of self-worth can begin to reattach itself to our deeds and character rather than our financial profiles. The best way to do this is with straight cash in equal amount to everyone on a regular basis, with no questions asked. The instant we try to add conditions to financial support, we’ve brought back the shame and division. We must let go of that urge to control and monitor each other and replace it with the strength to trust one another. We must forgive each member of our society the original sin of drawing breath, of pumping blood through their veins, of daring to exist. We must hold every single human being up as inherently valuable and worthy of resources and access. We must nourish before we seek to punish. Only then can any serious healing begin.
Leaving the Church of Money isn’t a journey we can make as individuals. Our God is far too strong for that to have any significance. We all need to escape it together. We have to walk, hand in hand, away from our shame and toward our humanity.
I want to live in a world where we’re not deceiving and hiding from each other all the time, where people can pursue their greatest talents and passions without begging for permission from some source of Money.
I want people to know where they stand, and I want that place to be up on a level playing field with everyone else. I want to be able to tell somebody I left engineering for acting and filmmaking without feeling the urge to self-deprecate and apologize with my eyes. I want you to get to chase whatever the hell it is inspires you without fear of your family suffering unduly for it.
I want my brother to be able to look at a check like the one our dad gave him, if he still needs it, as the tool that it is. I want Oliver, and you, to see that the money is not the gift. The gift isn’t even the treatment that will allow him to be able to use his shoulder again without the debilitating pain. The gift is the healing itself. That’s what my dad wanted to give.
I also don’t want to feel the need to bring up money when Oliver and I chat any more than I feel the need to bring up screwdrivers and socket wrenches.
And above all, I want Oliver to know that I know, and that society knows, that he’s god-damned awesome. He’s helping heal animals, for crying out loud! If there’s anything that I wish a whole lot more people did, it’s exactly that. His job is the epitome of love and value, and, every day since the day he was born, so was he.
So are you. You are valuable. You are priceless. Your bank account shouldn’t affect anyone’s opinion of that.
I want all of us to be able to see money for what it can be at it’s highest potential: not a sacred object but a simple device, a symbol, a stand-in for the love, trust, and respect that we all hold for each other and that each and every human being deserves. Today, Money is a shackle that binds us, locking us in our places. It’s also a veil that blinds us, both hiding our flustered faces and obscuring our view of reality.
But if we get this right, money can become a glue that helps connect us all.
We have to cleanse our souls of Dollar worship.
Let’s get to work.
UBI researcher/writer, Filmmaker, Manager of the Bootstraps Basic Income trial, Creator of UBIcalculator.com, Co-founder of Comingle.us